Hugill haunts his hometown, breathing life into QPR's lockdown - Report
Sunday, 5th Jul 2020 21:27 by Clive Whittingham
QPR stiffled their critics and made it seven away wins for the season with a 1-0 victory at Middlesbrough on Sunday.
The sort of points total that gets you into trouble in the Championship is not a particularly moveable feast. In a football league of 24 teams and 46 fixtures each, 50 is a pretty decent watermark.
Tell that to Peterborough, who went down with 54 in 2012/13, or Blackburn who were relegated on 51 three years ago, or Leicester and Walsall who went down with 52 and 51 respectively in the semi-recent past but, in general, over the last 20 years since QPR were relegated from this division for only the second time in the club’s 134-year history, the safety line hasn’t moved a great deal. Reading back through the third bottom teams in that period from Rotherham with 40 last season to Barnsley with 41 the season before, then Blackburn 51, Charlton 40, Millwall 41, Doncaster 44, Peterborough 54, Portsmouth 40, Preston 42, Sheff Wed 47, Norwich 46, Leicester 52, Southend 42, Crewe 42, Gillingham 50, Walsall 51, Sheff Wed 46, Crewe 49 and Huddersfield 48. Take all the emotion out of it, remove the masochism, ignore the woe-is-me fatalism and football fans’ penchant for ‘why always us?’ and it becomes simple mathematics.
Queens Park Rangers like to give this theorem the Good Will Hunting treatment. How close can we push it? What if, in the year Blackburn do get to 51 points in third bottom, we take a five win March and turn it into a seven defeat April? What if we get to 50, within six points of the play offs, with nine games to play, all of them against teams below us, and then lose every single one of them? It’s made the whole club jumpy – supporters, board members, managers, players. Ian Holloway spoke about it repeatedly - the eye-rolling, soul-sapping, here-we-go-again, bed-wetting, typical-bloody-QPR attitude that can snowball a routine pair of defeats into an all-encompassing crisis stretching on for games and games, weeks and weeks, defeat after defeat until managers are sacked, players are destroyed and written off, long term plans are torn up and the whole thing has gone to hell in a handcart. Fans race to be the first one to declare relegation imminent, a manager widely seen to be doing a good job in difficult circumstances not three weeks ago now surplus to requirements. QPR will almost certainly never win again, while half a dozen teams that haven’t been able to manage a point a game for 11 months will all go on a run of 4-0 wins. It can become a self-fulling, self-flagellation, shitshow. The Fields Medal, The Fields Medal.
And so we arrived in Middlesbrough. Three defeats from three matches, vague improvements against Fulham barely enough to dress the wounds of two wholly unacceptable no-shows against lowly Barnsley and Charlton, particularly as another pair of defensive errors meant Rangers were beaten in a London derby yet a-bloody-gain. Boro had taken one look at their pathetic 3-0 surrender to Swanselona in the first lockdown match and finally reached the inevitable conclusion that somebody who spent a playing career injured, scoring notable own goals, and booting Asian lads up and down Leeds High Street probably wasn’t going to be managerial material simply because he was born nearby. Into the Jonathan Woodgate breach stepped Neil ‘last job’ Warnock, for a twelfth annual farewell tour. With the sort of comic timing that’s made Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda successful in this country, the best QPR manager of recent times was back to face the club that binned him too soon and has never been the same since. I’m starting to think he doesn’t like Cornwall as much as he says he does.
Uncle Neil went big and early. Balls out of the bath. Against a team with just five clean sheets to its name this season, and the Championship’s third worst defence, he paired Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga together up front - £22m worth of Steve Gibson investment – with Man City loanee Patrick Roberts and QPR Twitfam cumsponge Ravel Morrison in support. #AnnounceRavel. QPR stuck with the back three system from Fulham, retaining Osman Kakay to the right of it, and selecting the faithful’s latest punching bags Todd Kane and Joe Lumley from the start. Lumley recalled for the first time since four successive goal-costing errors against Hull, Cardiff, Brentford and Sheff Wed over Christmas after Liam Kelly had himself been partly or wholly culpable in all four of the goals conceded under lockdown so far. QPR have been largely spoilt with goalkeepers over the last 50 years, 2019/20 has not been a vintage among them.
It felt like it was written. You could read it like a book. And not a very good book either. Certainly not Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab. Which actually improves with every read. But then, sometimes it does come back to simple maths. A team that had 50 points after 38 games doesn’t suddenly become a team that takes nothing from nine played. A team that’s struggled for a year to do a point a game doesn’t suddenly start stringing a Harlem Globetrotters routine together. There are odd examples, momentum can carry you into all sorts of unexpected places, but even with Neil Warnock’s muck and nettles routine, Middlesbrough lost at Hull City on Thursday night. Hull. Despite the outlay on forwards they’re the Championship’s lowest scorers this year on 40, and they looked every inch of that here against a comfortably superior QPR team.
Ryan Manning sent a bouncing bomb the goalkeeper’s way after two minutes. Ebere Eze made orphans of Dael Fry’s children after four, humiliating him tight to the byline, but got rather carried away with an attempted elaborate backheeled finish while the goal was gaping. Steady young Eberechi, stop waving it around and start fucking. Bright Osayi-Samuel streaked away from fright back Jonny Howson on five minutes but just overran the situation into touch with a supporting cast of thousands arriving into the penalty area waiting for a cut back. Todd Kane’s overhit cross nearly went in under the bar until Austrian goalkeeper Dejan Stojanovic, a hasty January replacement for West Ham-bound Darren Randolph, clawed it over the top. QPR’s first corner was well worked, and Eze’s shot off a short routine with Bright was headed behind. Middlesbrough had two midfielders – Howson and ex-Oxford protégé Marvin Johnson – playing full back and catalogue model George Friend tucked inside as a centre half alongside Fry. It was a cobbled together, patchwork set-up and it showed.
Not that QPR’s defence, on course for a third consecutive season of 70+ concession is anything to lube up for either. The set up at corners, in particular, is artery hardening and the first Boro one of the day was worked fairly simply and without too much effort to a completely unattended Howson whose shot was blocked.
Given what has gone before, it was an absolute steaming credit to Joe Lumley what came next. Naturally you assume he might want an early touch of the ball, there might be nerves that need settling. If you’re sitting at home just praying he doesn’t make another mistake, what do you imagine is rattling around his skull? What’s your biggest fear? A baseball being hit in my general direction. Yeh, good one. No, it’s that. It never showed. He came bounding off his line like a spring lamb to fist away a Boro corner on 14 and then when the ball was returned, and caught the QPR defence half pushed and half retreated, he produced a big, commanding save under Fletcher’s feet before he could get a meaningful shot away. One long ranger from Roberts was pouched without incident, another from Assombalonga was parried without risk. When Roberts fed Fletcher in on an angle, Joe stood big and tall at the near post and saved high up with one hand. My beautiful boy.
We’re going to talk about Jordan Hugill now - generation Z’s Devon White. Because here goes Fall Out Boy roaring away into the Middlesbrough half with nobody around him, after Osayi-Samuel intelligently won the ball back and freed him immediately on the counter attack, and, just, how do you like them with only George Friend for vague company and the whole goal to aim at? He delayed, narrowed the angle, and shifted the ball onto his weaker foot, as all good strikers are taught to do, lulling the opponent into a false sense of security before sliding the knife in. Somehow Stojanovic saved, having been given every chance to do so when he should never have even figured in the equation. All the question marks and angst and Twitter threads and podcasts over why Queens Park Rangers rely on loaned strikers each season and how much it costs and whether they’re actually that good, or that bothered, henced forth like the sort of tidal wave of cum Sky Sports presenters reserve for Wayne Rooney completing passes or Leeds United winning away games until, just hold on a minute here, Hugill latched onto a long through ball from Ryan Manning and, oh my God, immaculately chipped the goalkeeper from 30 yards out to make it 1-0.
Of course he did. There’s nothing more QPR, and more Hugill, than absolutely butchering a one on one chance with the goalkeeper one minute, then lobbing him perfectly from 30 yards out the next. Not only that, but killing his hamstring to death in the process. We’re not allowed nice things. Earlier his trademark lean-back-and-stick-your-boot-through-it finishing technique had actually benefitted us for a change as he stuck a Jonny Howson free kick high and handsome over his own cross bar. What a very QPR/Hugill time that would have been for him to finally get his head over the ball. If the glorious winning goal is his last action for the club this season/ever, then he finishes with 15, and with Nahki Wells’ contribution it’s the first time since Gallen and Furlong in 2003/04 that we’ve had two strikers breach that barrier in a season. Warbs Warburton sent on big bad Ilias Chair to join Bright Osayi-Samuel in the smallest frontline workforce since Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.
A second goal might have been nice. Eight before half time Ryan Manning was fantastic. Then Ebere Eze was fantastic. And suddenly Todd Kane was into clear space, brushing his hands through the long grass and running towards the ghost of his late wife as Hans Zimmer plays Now We Are Free. Johnson pushed him over, interrupting the narrative. Bloody scoundrel. Yellow card. And Manning’s low free kick, around the wall to catch out an unsighted goalkeeper, brought a very decent improvised save from Stojanovic.
Manning isn’t quite so crash hot defensively and it was something of a surprise that it took 44 minutes for Boro to try the big left to right switch over his head that had paid varying dividends for Barnsley, Charlton and Fulham the week prior. When they did, they got good results immediately. First Patrick Roberts chested down, got in behind, and drew a corner. Then straight away again he was able to cut inside, delay and commit players, and eventually see a shot blocked by desperate lunges from the last men standing.
1-0 at lunch.
QPR’s approach to the afternoon session was pretty clear, pretty early. There would be controlled possession, not really designed to do anything in particular, but also draining the clock and denying Middlesbrough any opportunity to get a head of steam up. Twice they completed 25 passes in a move without really going anywhere, burning away hours as they did it. Straight bat. Get past that.
All fine and well, unless Luke Amos passes it straight to Britt Assombalonga on 48 minutes in which case it’s time for plan B. Plan B in this instance was Osman Kakay. A bit of a stranger. One of those youth team graduates QPR seem to keep hanging around for year after year, contract renewal after contract renewal, loan after loan, without ever really having a use for other than making sure we’ve got enough bodies lying around to field an U23 team each week. He’d been noticeably impressive against Fulham, and here he was arguably QPR’s man of the match. Last seen in our colours in a 7-1 loss at West Brom two years ago, he’s giving all the indications of somebody who wants to seize a chance he wouldn’t otherwise have been afforded but for these strange times. He tackles people like he doesn’t want them hanging around here again. You hear them all over the empty stadium. You wince for the victims. He pocketed £15m worth of Britt Assombalonga before this, during this, and every second after it. In the end the former Wealdstone frontrunner chucked himself to the deck in the penalty area begging for a spot kick in such flagrantly brazen fashion that even referee Scott Duncan – whose grasp of the rules around kicks from the penalty mark is loose as a goose – had to book him for diving. Every now and again Kakay relieved the pressure by storming 80 yards down the field with the ball at his feet, at one point going all the way to the corner flag and then reversing a glorious pass into Ilias Chair for a potential second goal. It’s not a proper QPR team unless there’s a lad with dreadlocks doing bits in it, and on the evidence of the last 180 minutes we’ve potentially got a new prospect on our hands here.
There were odds and sods to report on before tea. Kakay, again, steaming in with a goal-saving header ahead of Assombalonga when Howson crossed well after Bright had been very harshly penalised. Roberts, Boro’s biggest threat by far, got through three challenges far too easily but saw a shot blocked. Lumley’s come-for-everything-ask-questions-later approach to crosses finally produced a bit of a fumble on 64 but Ravel Morrison, otherwise forlorn and completely anonymous (#announceRavel), toed the chance over. Uncle Neil made three Boro subs at once, and they made not a jot of difference. George Saville, an £8m player going against free transfer Dom Ball, saw yellow for rugby tackling Ebere Eze and it was about as effective as he’d been all day.
We shouldn’t pretend this wasn’t a 10p 5p arsehole day. Because it was. Partly because we convince ourselves it is, and partly because it was. On 71 minutes Roberts nutmegged Amos on halfway, and then rounded the sort of Dom Ball challenge that makes you think he won his place in this game in a raffle. He fed Assombalonga, who seemed certain to score, with men in support, arggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhh, until Yoann Barbet produced a big, fat, French block and a half that sent the ball sailing out for a meaningless throw in on halfway. It’s Yoann Barbet’s mum’s birthday today. She’s 60. Bon-fucking-jour.
To a neutral watching this, the game was done. QPR holding at arm’s length, Boro bereft and barely swinging, trainer considering a towel. As we lord recruitment elsewhere compared to our own it’s worth remembering again that Boro spent the thick end of £45m on this rabble while our team today was made up entirely of free transfers, youth team and loans. In a final 19 minutes of normal time and five added, with Neil Warnock’s big tub-thumping new manager bounce team pushing for an equaliser, I’ve written down two things, and one of them was Assombalonga’s attempt to con a penalty out of the immaculate Kakay. A scandal so cruel even Scott Duncan didn’t have the heart to enact it. The other was a mistake by the young defender, losing substitute Nmecha on another good Howson cross, but fortunately he volleyed over. In stoppage time Lumley powered off his line, came through a crowd, collected the ball, collapsed to the floor, and sealed the win. A return to action with no crowds to ironically cheer him may be an absolute tonic to a goalkeeper we were too quick to hail as the new messiah, and then equally hasty to write off. This was an all-encompassing, match-winning, commanding performance. I’m delighted for him.
QPR engaged in all the dark arts we detest when they’re done to us. Ryan Manning, after an error, collapsed with a career ending knee injury, but was fine a few moments later. Lumley, helpfully, went to search for a ball for his goal kick, right at the back of the stand behind the goal. Luke Amos got a really bad touch of timewaster’s cramp. Ooooh no, it’s really sore, God, that stings, yeh, stop the play, stop the play, oooh, fuck me, that is tight, Jesus, no I’ll probably be ok, don’t bring the trainer on, just give me… yeh… let’s just give it… give it, yeh, a minute. No give me… 40 seconds, I’ll be ok, thanks, thank you, no, seriously.
Scott Duncan added five, and could have added ten times that. Boro wouldn’t have scored if we were still there now. It just doesn’t feel like that at the time, because of who we are and what we’ve seen.
Sometimes though, it’s just simple maths.
If the professor calls just tell him sorry, I had to go see about a girl.
Boro: Stojanovic 6; Howson 6, Fry 5, Friend 5, Johnson 4 (Coulson 80, -); Moukoudi 5, Saville 5 (Wing 65, 5); Roberts 7 (Tavernier 80, -), Morrison 4 (McNair 66, 6), Fletcher 5 (Nmecha 66, 5); Assombalonga 5
Subs not used: Dijksteel, Shotton, Clayton, Pears
Bookings: Johnson 38 (foul), Saville 51 (foul), Assombalonga 89 (diving)
QPR: Lumley 7; Kakay 7, Cameron 6, Barbet 7; Kane 6, Manning 7; Amos 5, Ball 6, Eze 7 (Oteh 70, 5); Osayi-Samuel 7, Hugill 6 (Chair 35, 6)
Goals: Hugill 32 (assisted Manning)
QPR Star Man – Osman Kakay 7 A surprise inclusion during the week against Fulham, nearly two years since his last QPR appearance, and did himself no harm at all there. Here we has confident, aggressive, bossed Assombalonga physically and frequently relieved pressure and changed the momentum of play by forcefully carrying the ball into enemy territory and then doing something useful with it.
Scott Duncan (Northumberland) 8 A poor referee, but kept a firm hand on this one without too many quibbles or complaints. Called Assombalonga’s late Oscar contender exactly right when, had he not made the effort to get around for a proper viewing, another angle could have led him to believe it was a penalty.
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